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Upfront Week: There's no business like this mad TV business

Cometh the hour, cometh the TV execs.

This is Upfront Week. The U.S. networks take turns unveiling their new schedules to advertisers in New York. NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox trumpet their carefully planned strategies for fall 2012.

Party on, network dudes and ad agency dudettes! Everything unfolds in an ocean of free booze. Liquored-up ad agency types totter back to the office and declare that their clients must – totally, OMG must – buy ads on the new NBC comedy starring that guy from Friends!

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It's kind of sweet, really. All that giddy optimism. This is the most wonderful time of the year in the TV world. Every lame sitcom is a surefire hit. Every drama will compel busy people to stop all activity and watch, agog. Utterly agog, I tell you. Mind you, a short memory is required. This time last year, the ultra-expensive, ultra-family-friendly drama-with-dinosaurs called Terra Nova was the most talked-about new show. Then, when it aired, it wasn't. Never. Mind.

When I say "carefully prepared strategies," I jest. The TV racket adheres to a gloriously insane business model. Make 10 shows and pray that one works. Stick a new show between two existing ones and hope that people are too lazy to change the channel when their favourite show ends. It worked before.

NBC did its carny barking thing on Monday in New York, Fox does its shindig today. Some decisions about new shows and cancellations are known and rumours swirl like the free booze flowing into cocktail glasses at the parties.

Here's a summary of the network-by-network scuttlebutt.


Cancelled: Alleged comedies Are You There, Chelsea?, Bent, Best Friends Forever and the dramas Awake and Harry's Law.

Coming: A new alleged comedy, Go On, with former Friends guy Matthew Perry as a grieving widower-sportscaster in therapy about his loss. (Remember Perry in Mr. Sunshine? Yeah, me too. Not sunny, not funny.) Also, The New Normal, about a gay couple having a child by surrogate. This one comes from Ryan Murphy, co-creator of Nip/Tuck, Glee and American Horror Story. And there's Animal Practice, about a vet who likes critters better than people (hey, me too!) and Guys With Kids, about "some thirtysomething dads trying to hold on to their youth." The big deal in drama is from J.J. Abrams ( Lost, Fringe, Alcatraz), an apocalyptic drama called Revolution, in which all the world's electricity supply has quit working. Except for the TV sets, presumably.

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Probably cancelled: GCB, Missing, The River and Pan Am.

Probably coming: Two – count 'em, two – country music-themed dramas. Nashville is a soap opera with Connie Britton as an singer at her peak and Hayden Panettiere as a cutie performer on the rise. Malibu Country has Reba McEntire as a woman who divorces her country star hubby and moves with her kids to Malibu to resurrect her singing career. Lily Tomlin hangs around to make sarcastic remarks, apparently. Last Resort, from The Shield creator Shawn Ryan, has Andre Braugher and Scott Speedman as part of a crew of a U.S. nuclear submarine that goes rogue. Lily Tomlin does not hang around to make sarcastic remarks.


Cancelled: CSI: Miami, Unforgettable, Rob, NYC 22 and A Gifted Man.

Possible new shows: The already controversial Elementary, a new take on Sherlock Holmes, in which Jonny Lee Miller plays Holmes and Watson is a woman, played by Lucy Liu. Vegas is your CBS-style high-concept drama. Set in the 1960s, it's based on the true story of Ralph Lamb (Dennis Quaid), a rodeo cowboy who became sheriff of Las Vegas. Mad Men meets horse-opera, one assumes.

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Cancelled: Terra Nova, Alcatraz, I Hate My Teenage Daughter.

Possible new shows: The Mob Doctor stars Jordana Spiro as a young female surgeon who is indebted to the Chicago Mafia and is forced to moonlight as a doctor to the mob while also working full-time at Chicago's most prominent hospital. You can bet it was pitched as Grey's Anatomy meets The Godfather. And some exec went all, "Totally!" Also, The Following, about an ex-FBI agent (Kevin Bacon) whose job is to catch "a diabolical serial killer" (James Purefoy) who has already created a cult of serial killers. Probable question at the pitch meeting: "Just how diabolical is the serial killer?"

The road to network TV success is a dark desert highway, no matter what is said at the Upfronts. At this time of the year, best remember this story: In the spring of 2001, an English guy named Simon Cowell was in L.A. pitching a TV show to American TV execs. He called it Pop Idol. Cowell, much experienced in the music business, was getting fed up with the attitude he encountered. In a meeting with UPN, then the smallest network, he pitched the Pop Idol idea carefully.

The most senior UPN exec listened to Cowell while her minions expressed skepticism about the music angle to the reality show. Eventually, she said to Cowell, "And what exactly do you think we're supposed to be doing for you?" Cowell, irritated, replied, "Well, actually, sweetheart, it's more a question of what I could be doing for you." UPN told Cowell that they'd get back to him. They never did. And Fox picked up American Idol.

Bring it on. There's no business like this mad TV business.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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